Democrat Steve Israel represented Nassau Country in Congress for 16 years, rising steadily to a leadership position. But he shocked the political establishment when he announced he would not seek re-election this year, citing Washington's dysfunctional politics and the constant demands of fundraising.
Israel recently sat down with WNYC Washington correspondent John O'Connor for a candid look at not only the problems in Washington, but also how to fix them. The conversation ranged from redistricting and the influence of money to the best way to get your Congressman's attention.
"You sit at a cubicle surrounded by fabric partitions. Sit next to a finance assistant, who has a huge binder filled with the names of all of your donors, how much they gave, when they gave, spouses name, kids names, birthdays. All that relevant information. Sometimes you have one cellphone. Sometimes you do what’s called double dialing or triple dialing, if you really want to be efficient, you’re talking to one person and your finance assistant has a second person on the line waiting and has already dialed the third person. And it is just a grind. But it’s a grinding of democracy. "
The need to create more competitive House districts:
"We had non-partisan redistricting on Long Island. In New York state, the courts decided on our Congressional districts based on non-partisanship. And so you had a significant number of competitive races in New York because the districts were drawn more towards the middle."
Why lobbying is hampering Congress' ability to get things done:
"A lobbyist could show up at one of my fundraising events and say ‘Here, you know, I’m giving you a PAC contribution. Hope you’ll reconsider.’ And I can say ‘I will not reconsider.’ And that lobbyist can have a conversation with some super PAC that can then spend unlimited amounts of money on television, on radio, in my district, defeating me in the next election. That is poisonous and something needs to be done about that."
What he learned about trying to find common ground between Republicans and Democrats:
"Democrats and Republicans are going to disagree 75 percent of the time. That’s okay....The problem with Washington is that we agree on 25 percent in the balance, but we spend all our time beating ourselves up over the 75 percent where we’re never going to get agreement."
And the best way to pressure your Congressman for change:
"For my friends who are centrists and progressives, my advice is: take a play out of that (Tea Party) playbook. You want campaign finance reform? You want to protect the environment? You want to strengthen Social Security? You want affordable education? Do what the Tea Party did to Democrats. Show up at town hall meetings and make your voice heard."